Legislators approve property sales

A joint committee of the Louisiana Legislature met for an hour or so during a fishing rodeo weekend in Grand Isle to vote on selling Baton Rouge-area property that would help balance the state’s budget.

Eleven members of the House Committee on Natural Resources and five members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources voted Thursday to allow the state to sell the office building, at 150 Third Street in downtown Baton Rouge, and the Point Clair Farm, a nearly 2,200 acre-site near St. Gabriel.

State Sen. Gerald Long, who co-chairs the joint committee, said Thursday night that maintaining the 55-year-old office building, coupled with the cost of redeveloping and upgrading the property, was an expensive proposition. It was an easy decision to take the cash instead, he said.

“And we need the money. We’re extremely strapped for cash,” said Long, R-Winnfield. “We have a lot of items in this year’s budget that have been approved but not funded.”

The 92,567 square foot office building, which was constructed in 1958, is appraised to sell for $10.25 million, according to state documents. Division of Administration spokesman Michael DiResto told The Associated Press that there were “several interested parties” in the Baton Rouge office building, though he didn’t list them.

State Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, was the only legislator to vote against the transaction. Oretego said the state already is leasing thousands of square feet of office space in downtown Baton Rouge, often at high rents. He said moving just three agencies out of their rented offices and into the vacant office building would save $1 million a year in rents.

The former prison farm property in Iberville Parish is valued at $12 million.

State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said committee members inserted “a safeguard” in the Iberville Parish property sale. If the Russian buyer does not start construction within three years, it must sell the property to someone that the state directs them to at a $2 million loss, Jones said.

The Russian chemical company, EuroChem, is considering the Iberville Parish site for its plans to build a $1.5 billion fertilizer plant and distribution center in the state. The company’s choosing between the state property and a site in St. John the Baptist Parish.

“If they make a decision to do it in St. John, it immediately opens the resale option at the state’s direction,” Jones said. “They have to sell it at a discount.”

Long said the hearing was held in Grand Isle because about 50 legislators were attending a Coastal Conservation Association fishing rodeo, which begins Friday.

While members of the joint natural resources committee received per diem and mileage to attend Thursday’s hearing, Long said other legislators attending the rodeo are not being paid.

The association is charging each participant $75 to offset expenses and thereby ensure the event stays within state ethics rules, Long said.

Lawmakers are staying in camps owned by private individuals, he said. They start fishing tomorrow morning and will go out on the Gulf of Mexico with local people, he said.